In light of recent outbreaks of avian influenza, or bird flu, in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) held a meeting in Rio de Janeiro on March 16, 2023. Organized by PAHO’s Health Emergency Department and the Pan American Center for Foot and Mouth Disease (PANAFTOSA), the meeting gathered health experts from the Americas. They discussed strategies for halting the spread of the disease, which poses great health and economic risks to those dependent upon poultry.
Bird flu occurs due to a virus of the Orthomyxoviridae family. Although the disease mainly spreads among birds, it can be transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals or contaminated feces. According to PAHO, risk factors include “handling infected poultry carcasses, and preparing poultry for consumption, especially in domestic settings.” Depending upon the severity of the infection, bird flu’s effects on humans can range from mild or asymptomatic to lethal.
In the recent past, several strains of the virus have spread across the globe. In the last decade alone, Southeast Asia and West Africa saw the disease spread widely, resulting in substantial losses of livestock and income. With more recent outbreaks of a highly pathogenic A(H5) variant in 10 countries of the Americas, PAHO circulated an epidemiological alert on 11 January. By March, the disease had spread to 14 countries across the region, with the first human case reported in Ecuador.
Bird Flu and Poverty
Bird flu can have a detrimental impact on those living in poverty. A research study funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, which explored the relationship between poultry and poverty in Vietnam, found that “poultry is in fact very much a livestock asset of the poor.” In Vietnam, as in other countries, much of the rural population depends upon poultry for sustenance and income. According to the study, poultry is both “an important source of protein” and “an investment” that “yields extremely high returns.”
Bird flu can therefore be devastating for small-scale poultry farmers. They face, not only a higher risk of infection and transmission but also lack the resources needed to prevent and treat infections among their livestock. A report by the World Bank shows that the spread of bird flu could disproportionately impact low- and middle-income countries. The report estimates that if 12% of domestic birds died from bird flu worldwide, low- and middle-income countries would see a GDP reduction of 0.4%, even though global GDP would shrink by just 0.1%. The spread of bird flu would particularly affect Latin America and the Caribbean, causing a cumulative GDP reduction of 0.7%.
With attendees from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, the PAHO-hosted meeting in Rio de Janeiro provided an opportunity to collaborate to protect the region’s most vulnerable. Dr. Manuel Sánchez Vázquez, a Veterinary Epidemiology Advisor at PANAFTOSA, said, “it is crucial that public and animal health sectors carry out joint risk analyses to establish mitigation strategies.” There were several recommendations for reducing the risk of regional bird flu transmission. These included increasing monitoring and surveillance; enforcing proper hygiene standards; and creating “national technical commissions for information exchange and analysis between ministries of health, agriculture and environment.”
PAHO regularly organizes such meetings to strategize plans for responding to zoonotic diseases. The Ministerial Level Inter-American Meeting on Health and Agriculture, for instance, provides an ongoing regional forum to discuss threats such as the bird flu and collaborate in prevention and response planning.
The WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) also supports global influenza surveillance and mitigation. With institutions in 125 WHO member states, GISRS provides guidelines, alerts and monitoring mechanisms to ensure a high level of global readiness to respond to threats of influenza.
The WHO also works to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected in times of need. It has secured 10% of the global supply of pandemic flu vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. It is negotiating with manufacturers to secure 20% of the global supply of vaccines for other types of pandemics.
Bird flu is a virus that can be lethal to humans and animals alike. While the threat of bird flu is real, there are proactive measures and cooperative efforts that can be taken to mitigate its effects. With the right strategies in place, more lives and livelihoods can be saved from this potentially deadly virus.
– Siddhant Bhatnagar